The Works ensured merry Christmas trading by embracing change

Comment: The Works CEO Kevin Keaney on how he changed his business model

We’re at the end of January and retail’s Christmas trading report card is complete.

Despite the usual prophets of doom who continue to forecast the demise of high street retail, there have been a healthy number of Christmas winners.

When I look at them, the common theme has been their willingness to face difficult choices and adapt their proposition in an increasingly unforgiving trading environment.

As a retailer that reported strong festive trading, the question I’ve been asked most is “how is The Works doing so well in a bookstore sector that is struggling?”

The answer is straightforward: we are no longer a bookstore. We recognised the shift in shopping behaviour that was taking place and have repositioned our proposition to make it relevant for today’s trading environment.

Three years ago, The Works was known as a discount book retailer in a sector where online shopping had become dominant and ebooks increasingly accessible.

Like many of this year’s Christmas winners, we had a choice to make.

We could choose to ignore the change happening around us and become a victim of it, or we could embrace it and see an opportunity to thrive.

The first thing we did was recognise the gap left on the high street by the disappearance of Woolworths for a family friendly discount retailer that provides a value alternative to higher-priced specialists.

Over the last three years, we have changed our proposition by increasing our ranges of arts, craft, stationery and gifts, to the extent that books now represent less than 30% of floor space in some of our stores. We have also embraced the concept of ‘fun learning’ to grow our children’s categories.

At Christmas, because of this unique product mix, we were able to take the bold decision to transform our entire estate into ‘Santa’s gift shops’ and this theme was embraced by our store teams and our customers.

Another choice we made was to invest in ecommerce and become a multichannel discount retailer.

Few discount retailers have made ecommerce work, so this was by no means a simple or easy choice.

This investment online has raised our brand awareness and helped us capture a new customer base, which continues to grow. We also chose to recognise the value of our loyal customers by being the first in the discount sector to launch a loyalty card, incentivising more frequent store visits and higher spend.

Three years on, we now define ourselves as a family friendly discount store and our drive to always offer our customers high-quality products at bargain prices runs through our DNA.

I know we are only sitting in the winner’s corner this Christmas because of the tough choices we made. Any change involves risks and for many retailers it is not easy deciding to change the proposition that has made them successful in the first place.

At The Works, I have been lucky to run a business that has very low debt and a supportive ownership team that has encouraged the changes that we’ve made.

Like the rest of our industry, we are already looking forward and I know there will be more difficult choices to make in the months ahead.

However, history shows that in retail the winners are those who embrace change and see it as an opportunity to thrive, and the losers are those who ignore it.